Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Wargrave Local History Society

A PRESENTATION by Linda Humphrey-Evans on Caversham Court Gardens was given at Wargrave Local History Society’s October meeting.

Linda described the gardens as “Caversham’s best kept secret”, even though they have been included in English Heritage’s list of the historic parks of interest in England since 1987.

The gardens are situated on the north bank of the River Thames, just to the west of Caversham Bridge, with an entrance through large wooden gates set into the flint wall at the bottom of St Peter’s Hill.

The site is now a public open space owned by Reading Borough Council and has been refurbished with the aid of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

To qualify for that, it had to be shown that this is an historic site and is supported by, cared for and available to local people.

The formation of the Friends of Caversham Court Gardens was one way in which this community involvement was shown.

The site has had relatively few owners in the last 1,000 years and its history is well documented.

In Saxon times it belonged to Earl Godwinson but by the Domesday Survey of 1086, William the Conqueror had given the property to Walter Gifford, 1st Earl of Buckingham.

Gifford also had extensive lands at Long Crendon in Buckinghamshire and did not need the Caversham site, so gave it to the Augustine Notley Abbey.

As a result, a Norman church and rectory were built on the land. So, for about another 300 years, it was the home to a priest. In due course, it was thought better to have a tenant for the propertywho was required to provide a capable and suitable priest for the church.

Among the tenants was William Marshal, a knight at the court of King John, who became Lord of the Manor of Caversham.

When Henry VIII caused the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, he gave the Caversham site to King’s College, Oxford (renamed by Henry, having previously been called Wolsey’s College, and now known as Christ Church College).

The college archives contain many documents relating to the Caversham site.

The Civil War saw many encounters between the Parliamentarians and Royalists in the area and the river crossing at Caversham was a place that both armies sought to control.

When the war was over, the country was afflicted by the Great Plague of 1666.

A wealthy London jeweller, Thomas Loveday, was looking to move his family out of London to a healthier location and came to live at Caversham.

He had three wives in succession and 10 children, only two of whom survived into adulthood.

The house, which is in Tudor style, was known as the Old Rectory, although it was often referred to as the “striped house”.

It belonged to Christ Church College and in due course Thomas’s son John succeeded him as the tenant.

Several generations of Lovedays occupied the Old Rectory for a total of 134 years until 1799, when the house was sold (Christ Church still owned the lease).

The new occupants were the family of William Blackall Simmonds, of the well-known Reading brewing and banking family.

The Simmonds were also to remain for a long time. They loved the property and had the house remodelled in the Victorian pseudo Gothic style.

William Blackall Simmonds’ son, also called William, succeeded him and then Henry John Simmonds moved in in 1866.

He was a lawyer and a friend of Gladstone who became Mayor of Reading and hosted the Reading Regatta.

He also changed the name of the house to The Rectory and bought the lease from Christ Church College in 1881.

In turn, the house was inherited by Henry Caversham Simmonds in 1896 but the funds began to run out so the house was leased to several other occupants, including Lady Mosley.

She was a kind and generous woman who hosted outings for wounded soldiers and helped provide for the needy.

Eventually, in 1919, the Simmonds sold it to Thaddeus Arathoon, an Armenian jute trader from Calcutta, and he decided to change the name to Caversham Court.

By the Thirties, the estate and house had fallen into a poor condition.

The Caversham Court Company was formed to make it into a club but that did not succeed either, so the Borough of Reading offered to buy it for £3,450.

There was a suggestion that this may have been in connection with plans ato build a new river bridge and road there.

For a while, the house was used as a home for people suffering from various diseases but there was no money available for its upkeep.

It became derelict and the house was in a dangerous state, so it was demolished for safety reasons and the grounds became a public park.

During the Second World War, part of the land was used for the “Dig for Victory” campaign, while the kitchen garden was to become allotments.

After the war, the gardens remained a popular place to visit and various events and entertainments were held there.

But the financial constraints of the late 20th century meant the gardens were no longer maintained as they had been in earlier times.

It was an historically interesting site, as recognised by English Heritage.

Although the houses themselves were no longer standing, the stables became Grade II listed.

Archaeological work found that Tudor beer cellars and 19th century wine cellars as well as establishing the footprint of the houses.

A project was set up to restore the grounds and the surviving buildings, including a 17th century gazebo.

Red bricks have been set into the ground to show where the walls of the Tudor house had been, while stones similarly indicate where the later pseudo Gothic ones had stood.

Alongside the steps that lead from one level to another stand two pillars each topped by a stone griffin — the pillars include stones with cat-like faces, which may have come from Reading Abbey. To one side of the steps, the area has been planted in Tudor style, with herbs and similar plants, while on the other side the beds contain plants favoured in Victorian gardens.

The work, which was partly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, was done under the guidance of the head gardener, some of the workforce being provided by Reading prison.

The restored park was
re-opened in 2009.

Apart from lawns, trees and formal flower beds, there is a crinkle-crankle wall, a mulberry courtyard and a bank of lavender where box plants have been added to show the layout of old walls there.

The area is laid out to be accessible to those in wheelchairs as well as those on foot.

The work of maintaining the grounds is the responsibility of the head gardener, who is assisted by the Friends and other volunteers. The resulting displays were successful in the 2018 Britain in Bloom competition.

The gardens host a variety of events during the year as well as providing for school visits.

A tea room is run during the summer in aid of local charities, while guided tours — either historic or sensory — are available on the first Sunday of each month.

The society’s next meeting will be held on Tuesday, November 12 when Diana Coulter and Brian O’Callaghan will explore Sonning through the history of 10 of its buildings.

On Tuesday, December 10, the society will hold its Christmas party.

Meetings are held at the Old Pavilion at Wargrave recreation ground, starting at 8pm.

For more information, call Peter Delaney on 0118 940 3121 or visit www.wargrave
history.org.uk

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